A vicious serial killer finds himself in an awkward position after he mistakenly takes a swipe at a top mob boss…
After his iconic role in the international hit Train to Busan, Ma Dong-seok (or Don Lee, as he goes by in the west) has become one of the most recognisable and prolific Korean actors, frequently playing off his gruff but charismatic screen persona. With him onboard, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, the latest film from writer-director Lee Won-tae (The Magician) has been an eagerly awaited release, playing at Cannes out of competition and picking up sales around the world, pitching itself as a hard-edged mob thriller with shots of moral ambiguity on the side – a Hollywood remake produced by Sylvester Stallone with Ma in the same role has since been announced.
Apparently based loosely on a series of real-life murders, the film is set in Cheonan in the summer of 2005, and opens with maverick detective Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yul, War of the Arrows) trying to convince his boss that what appears to be a road rage killing or robbery might be something more sinister. Though his suspicions are ignored, events take an unexpected turn when the killer (Kim Sung-kyu, who also starred with Ma in The box office smash The Outlaws) strikes again, inadvertently targeting mob boss Jang Dong-su (Ma), attacking him on the road, and barely escaping with his own life. Jang survives, and with his pride and reputation hurting him more than his wounds, decides to track down his assailant with the help of his goons. With Jang as the case’s only witness, Jung seizes his opportunity, and tries to convince the gangster to team with him in bringing down the murderer, though things don’t quite go as planned.
Although it’s a little hard to get excited about yet another glossy, violent Korean mob flick, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil does at least have an interesting premise, with an edgy dynamic front and centre and with much blurring of the line between good and evil. This in itself is nothing new, though Lee Won-tae’s script is efficient and packs in the requisite number of twists and turns along the way to its satisfying, if predictable conclusion. While Jang and Jung’s investigations are simplistic and largely based around random coincidences, Lee throws in some intriguing subplots revolving around their troubles at work and with other gangs, and this helps to distract from the overall lack of originality and substance.
There’s plenty of action to keep things moving throughout the admirably brief sub-two hour running time, mostly in the form of the usual mass brawls and the occasional stabbing, all nicely choreographed and slickly handled, Ma having lots of chances to throw his fists around and play the tough guy – perhaps surprisingly given its serial killer subject matter, the film isn’t particularly nasty, with little blood or graphic murder scenes, and this perhaps will count against it for viewers expecting something grittier.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is a visually impressive film, though it has a very similar look to most others of its type, with lots of rain, neon and modern noir stylings, and countless shots of gaudy gangster luxury and familiar-looking police stations. Thankfully, Lee seems to be at least vaguely aware of this, and doesn’t take things too seriously, amping up the usual themes of corruption, betrayal and loyalty almost to the point of pantomime, with the cast spending most of the running time shouting at each other. The performances are very much key, and Ma Dong-seok is perfect in his role, pulling off the balancing act of making Jang a vaguely likeable, if not entirely sympathetic, noble villain, effortlessly stealing every scene he appears in and making the film far more fun than it might otherwise have been. Playing Jang like a bull in a china shop from start to finish, Ma dominates the film, leaving Kim Moo-yul and Kim Sung-kyu very much in his shadow – it’s certainly fitting that the film is called The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil and not the other way around.
Ma’s presence really gives things a boost, and lifts The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil up a couple of notches, preventing it from being lost in the already overcrowded Korean gangster genre playing field. All the better for its sensible running time, and energetically directed by Lee Won-tae, though there’s nothing even remotely new here, it’s an enjoyable film, if one that would have been improved by not pulling so many of its punches.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil screened as part of the London East Asia Film Festival 2019, and is on UK Digital including iTunes from 15 November 2019 from Vertigo Releasing.
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